DNA 'Printing' A Big Boon To Research, But Some Raise Concerns
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are companies now that print and sell DNA. As NPR's Rob Stein reports, this is fueling excitement about using DNA to do all sorts of things, and it's fueling just as many concerns.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When I first heard about DNA printing, I thought, what? I mean, I know about regular old printing and 3-D printing where they make stuff with gizmos that squirt out molten plastic, but DNA printing? To find out what that's all about, I went to San Francisco, made my way to a big old industrial building downtown and rang a doorbell on the fourth floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)
AUSTIN HEINZ: Hi, I'm Austin Heinz.
STEIN: Hi, I'm Rob Stein, nice to meet you.
Austin Heinz is the CEO of a company called Cambrian Genomics.
HEINZ: We're a DNA laser printing company, so our whole business is printing DNA.
STEIN: Heinz wants to show me how he prints DNA, so he takes me to this big open room, high ceilings, huge windows; it's jammed with computer monitors, hard drives, cables, glass trays and plastic vials. There are a bunch of young guys, some wearing blue rubber gloves and holding what look like big syringes. Heinz pulls open a cabinet and points to a row of large brown bottles.
HEINZ: So these are the four chemical components of DNA. There's an A, a C, a T and a G, and they're in these four distinct bottles.
STEIN: One contraption mixes these four chemicals.
HEINZ: You run the letters A, T, C and G over these electrodes, and you can build up your strands of DNA.
STEIN: A bunch of companies have sprung up to build synthetic strands of DNA like this. It's now much easier and cheaper than ever before, and Heinz says his company is making it even cheaper by doing something different.
HEINZ: Everyone else that makes DNA makes DNA incorrectly and then tries to fix it. We don't fix it. We just see what's good, what's bad and then we use the correct pieces.
STEIN: They do that by putting chunks of DNA on tiny metal beads that glow with different colors. That lets a computer scan millions of pieces of DNA to find the right ones.
HEINZ: So we just take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, and we read the sequences.
STEIN: It's basically a high-tech version of spellcheck, and then Cambrian prints the correct DNA by firing a computer-controlled laser at a glass tray - a glass tray holding millions of those tiny metal beads coated with DNA in just the right order.
HEINZ: The DNA laser printer is essentially a sorter. It creates an explosion on the surface of the glass that catapults the bead sequence into the collector tray.
STEIN: An explosion.
STEIN: What do you mean an explosion?
HEINZ: The laser hits the surface of the glass and creates an explosion
STEIN: Oh, really? So it's like - it really is like a tiny little explosion.
HEINZ: Yeah. It's like mini, like, hydrogen bomb going off on the surface of the glass.
STEIN: This laser printing process can produce any strand of DNA made to order. OK, so Heinz can crank out lots of DNA like this, but for what? Well, so far his main customers are drug companies. They're using the DNA to do things like genetically engineer microbes to find new medicines.
HEINZ: They may be interested in making a protein that attacks a cancer cell with some kind of killer payload.
STEIN: Others are genetically engineering plants to try to make them grow better, but Austin Heinz says that's just for starters. He sees a day when mass-produced DNA can genetically engineer people or let anyone use DNA like a computer code to design their own organisms.
HEINZ: I think some people will find the process of designing and making organisms just fun in itself.
STEIN: Does it ever strike you as kind of odd what you do? I mean, DNS is, like, the essence of life, and it's reduced to an industrial process or product in some ways. Is that - I don't know.
HEINZ: Yeah, I mean, people have been making DNA for 40 years, so I'm definitely not doing anything new. But the scale at which we're making it and the cost at which we're making it at is new. Just like when computers were a dollar per transistor, it would cost billions for a computer. And now you can make billions of transistors for a few dollars, and everyone's got one.
STEIN: But this is making some people nervous. Marcy Darnovsky is with a genetic watchdog group called the Center for Genetics and Society.
MARCY DARNOVSKY: Austin Heinz talks openly about everybody being able to create entirely novel creatures. In fact, he uses to creature as a verb, so, you know, is that what we want? Do we want anybody, including potential terrorists, to be able to create entirely novel life forms - new creatures? Do we want the teenager next door to be creating Godzilla in the bathtub? I don't want that.
STEIN: She also worries about genetically engineered plants running amok, ruining the environment. And says genetically engineered people would be even worse.
DARNOVSKY: Many of the figures in the synthetic biology field are not shy at all about embracing that prospect that we're going to use synthetic biology to redesign humanity and to engineer the traits in our children, and that I find extremely disturbing.
STEIN: But others say those kinds of fears are exaggerated. Rob Carlson is a biotech analyst.
ROB CARLSON: Like every other technology, we need to be paying attention to how it's used. It is not intrinsically more dangerous than other technologies, and in fact, if you wanted to do harm, there are many easier ways to go about causing harm than using synthetic DNA.
STEIN: Austin Heinz says he gets it. This could be dangerous stuff, but he says his company is being very careful. They won't sell DNA to just anyone, and he says the potential benefits to society are huge.
HEINZ: So much good can be done. We can make DNA that would be used to make a virus that could target your cancer cells. And I think it can be helpful for dealing with some of the problems that humans have created. If we can, like, make plants that suck more carbon out of the atmosphere, we can deal with global warming, and I think in general, most people will want children that are healthier than they were; maybe, you know, better. I mean, I think as a race or as a species we have a goal of improving who we are.
STEIN: So Cambrian Genomics and other companies are scaling up their operations to meet what many expect to be a growing demand for synthetic DNA. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.